Learning Style

Learning simply means the formation of a new nerve connection. Ah ah, two new nerve ends meet; these ends are not two whole nerves meeting but two tiny branches. We are branching and connecting nerve fibres, forming synapses, all the time. However, how each of us perceive to make specific connections varies from person to person. Two basic styles have been described; a right brained and left brained approach to learning. This is an over simplification for each individual learns in their own way.

To learn we must make those physical connections, which means making perceptual connections. There are two fundamental approaches to making these connections. To see that as belonging to that, and that, and that, etc, is to make the connections in a sequential, linear manner, always adding one to one in a vertical or linear string. This doesn’t mean it is perceived in the flash of a light, more that the picture is built up bit by bit, frequently using trial and error. The search ultimately leads to results, so that the search is worthy in it’s own right. To learn in this way it is essential to notice the fine detail, to persevere, to learn as you go; to sift, reject, select, connect. This is frequently described as a left brained approach to learning. It is language based, meaning that the thought processes are heard as words. It is to this style of learning that most of our school based teaching is directed.

On the other hand there is the approach frequently described as the right brained style which is much more visuo-spatial. Instead of seeing things as connected bits the individual sees the whole picture; they see things in a holistic way. Flashes of inspiration, sudden awareness driven by intuition. This approach does not focus on the detail, to busy with the grand scale, described as impulsive, imaginative and creative.

Each of us has a right and left brain and we should use both sides to create a truly effective way of sensing and processing, enabling us to see both the fine detail, the large picture, learn from experience and be creative. When an individual is described as right or left brained it is the preference, the dominant style that is being described, not that an individual uses only one side. Dominance as a slight preference is perfectly normal, the individual will learn best if they understand their particular preference but is not handicapped. However there are individuals who have such a preference for one style of learning that learning may not be effective. Because schools teach predominantly to the left brain it is the right brained individual who is perceived as handicapped in the early years. The left brained learner does well at school; however research has demonstrated that school achievers tend not to be those who do well in the work place, where initiative, creativity, and seeing the big picture are essential. Thomas Hartmann puts forward the view that ADD may result from a naturally selected set of characteristics; those required by the hunter. The hunter needs to see well in the dark, to see small rapid movement; fine minute detail will hinder the chase. He needs to see the big picture, to intuitively respond at speed. Schools on the other hand teach to the farmer, sequential, detailed, step by step acquisition of facts. He believes that schools should modify their teaching style to address the “hunter child”.

I would certainly agree with the above statement, but in my experience an extreme bias to one side of the brain reflects a specific handicap. It is interesting that the majority of the children I see, especially those with very apparent learning difficulties, do fit into the holistic, impulsive right brained learning style. I believe this results from the retention of a specific Primitive Reflex, the ATNR, which prevents the normal maturation of the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is the connecting fibres between the right and left hemisphere which allows for the transfer of information from one side to the other. Dirk Baaker found that initial reading skills in children are primarily controlled by the visuo-spatial right brain; whole word recognition by shape and length; given this the look and say method as an early reading method is the most appropriate. At some point between 6-8 the majority of children read by switching to the linguistic left brain, when the phonetic approach becomes appropriate.

Some years ago the ability to learn was all put down to ones innate intelligence, measured by IQ. Intelligence was a thing you either had or hadn’t. Opponents to this view believed that intelligence was something that could be developed; and long ranged the arguments over nature versus nurture. Howard Gardener in the 1980’s broke away from this singular view and described the theory of multiple intelligences; that different people have different abilities related to language, spatial awareness, body awareness and movement, maths and logic; yet others are more attuned to music or people. Rarely do we have equal abilities in all or none; most usually we have a combination, with a special flair in one or more. He believes that ability in one area should be considered just as valued as another, that society has created a schism by honouring academic ability over practical skill, over social skill, etc.

Another way of looking at learning style is to look at which of the senses transmit information for processing most effectively. Some people learn best from what they see, others what they hear, visual or auditory learning styles. Yet others are tactile and learn best when they can touch. This way of describing learning preference does not negate the sequential left brained style or the visuo-spatial right brained style. Nor is it sufficient to state that a visual learner is essentially spatial right brained; though it is more certain to describe an auditory language based learner as having a left brained bias. This being so, the right brain still has some impact upon language, it detects rhythm, tempo; the words, grammar, and structure, being processed by the left brain. Even though children begin their reading with the right brain the left brain function is still very important for, reading as much as writing is a language based task; so that a strongly biased right brained learner with good visuo-spatial knowledge will usually have difficulty reading because their language skills are not sufficiently developed. Just as that child will also have difficulty writing, creating any thoughts with words; they will be much better building up their ideas in pictures, mind maps. The tactile learner on the other hand will need to feel, move; mime, dance.

It was because different people have a number of senses through which we gain information that multi-sensory learning became established, though this approach has gained more emphasis when used with children with learning difficulty. When teaching to a variety of senses it must always be appreciated which is a child’s best sense. Teaching to the best sense will obviously achieve the greatest results. The weaker senses, however, must not be ignored; they need stimulating to improve their function. Stimulation of these weaker senses must take a secondary role to the primary sense for learning otherwise the child will become over stimulated, and overloaded. When overloaded the brain will tend just to switch off, take a wee rest; daydream for a while. Another major problem with simultaneous multi-sensory teaching is that when two or more senses are stimulated at the same time, they will absorb the information at different rates. For example what is heard processed slower than what is seen; in consequence it is easy for the child to make inappropriate links so that they become misinformed or confused.

Once a child’s best sensory route is established it is possible to devise simple techniques to aid learning by directing information toward that route. It is also possible to devise a variety of ways of promoting the development of the weaker sensory pathways.

Recognition of learning style is of major importance to children in whom specific sensory pathways are not functioning adequately because of Neuro-Developmental Delay; however, it is never done in isolation. The aim of treatment is always to remove the causes for poor sensory function. The variety of treatments is all used to this purpose. Firstly, the primary exercises remove the unwanted effects of the Primitive Reflexes; they stimulate the development of the Postural Reflexes promoting automatic control. The secondary exercises encourage the development of integrating pathways between the two halves of the brain and between the various structural entities of the brain. Visual stimuli are received at the back of the brain, auditory stimuli at the side; linkage of what we hear and what we see occurs in another area; whilst interpretation of the meaning is achieved in the front. Sound Therapy has an obvious effect upon the ears and the auditory pathways, which will effect the speed and clarity of the perception of speech, also aiding in the development of self speech. Because the ear is divided into two communicating sections, hearing and movement and balance, sound therapy will also have an effect upon movement and balance. Some specific sound therapies are also created to promote the integration of nerve pathways between the two halves and between the various functional sections. In other words the physical treatments bring about nerve connections, they are about learning in themselves; the basic learning that the infant and pre-school child does prior to embarking on academic learning.